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Spanx Self-Made Billionaire

Spanx's Sara Blakely: Get Off Autopilot

It’s not too often you can get a room full of women to admit to wearing shapewear.
But when MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski asked the audience at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit if they owned or were wearing Spanx, half the hands in the room shot up without caring if anyone around them knew. The women were happy to admit this because Spanx founder Sara Blakely was sitting right across from them.
“My inspiration was my own butt,” Blakely said. “I might be the only one grateful for cellulite and back fat.”
Blakely turned an idea and $5,000 in savings from selling fax machines into a $250-million-a-year business.
But the money didn't roll in from the start. Once she had her first samples made, she looked up companies in the Yellow Pages to find clients. Before long, she was in the bathroom at Neiman Marcus in white pants demonstrating what she looked like before and after putting on Spanx.
That was enough to nab Spanx a spot in seven Neiman Marcus stores.
When Blakely told the manufacturer who made her samples about the Neiman Marcusdeal, his response caught her off guard: “I thought these were just going to be Christmas gifts for the next five years,” he told her.
To ensure that her products left the shelves, she called up everyone she knew near those Neiman Marcus Marcus stores and asked them to buy a pair of Spanx that she’d reimburse them for. “Right when I was running out of friends and money, Oprah named them one of her favorite things,” Blakely said.
And that changed everything. Blakely is now the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire, according to Forbes.
Blakely, who’s never taken a business class, ran every department for two years because she couldn’t afford anyone else. When she was able to expand, she hired people who were good at her weaknesses. Now she has 170 employees,140 of whom are women.
Blakely's success can be attributed to listening to the customer and continuing to innovate. Some of Spanx's new products include shapewear for men (yes, even Warren Buffett now has his own pair), "denim leggings" called Spanx jeans and bras.
Her advice for the rest of us: Try something new, even when it makes you uncomfortable.
"I like to stop people and say 'If nobody showed you how to do your job, how would you do it?' There’s so much amazing creativity that will surface if we stop and get off autopilot,” Blakely said. “Change is going to happen when you do something differently.”

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